Friday, September 11, 2020

In the Land of the Rain Gnomes by Harrison Kim

A retired social worker takes his lady friend for an adventure in a creepy ghost town accessible only by boat; by Harrison Kim. 

Decaying isn't that bad. It's a unification with your beginnings, a melding into the earth, a relaxing absorption where you do nothing but rot. The ego humbles itself before this ultimate dissolution, this disintegration of body and mind, this unthreading and wasting towards lightness.

I live in the ghost town of Nitnat Falls. I pace its abandoned, crumbling streets under drizzling skies, bed down on tree boughs at night, cool and damp in my lean-to under huge cedars. I've cut myself off completely from my old life. This wasn't quite what I had planned for my retirement, but it's stress-free. I've never felt such calm, such a letting go. I trace the lichen patterns growing from my navel, and wet my face in the mist.

Two months before I arrived in Nitnat Falls I'd retired from thirty years as a social worker at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital. I was ready for a lift from the bondage of routine, a permanent vacation from listening to people's delusions, being exposed to their madness day after day. I looked towards a life of travel and good times with my new friend Amanda, a thin, elegant lady semi-retired from the real estate business. This first trip of our relationship involved taking a boat up the remote west coast. The cargo boat stopped at fishing camps and Indian villages to deliver mail and supplies. Its halfway destination was Nitnat Falls, an abandoned pulp mill town located under towering mountains, with only a score of diehard inhabitants left living in a few moldy, crumbling buildings set against a view of dark clouds. I wanted to re-experience my adventurous youth, explore remote places. I'd always been fascinated by local history, and the story of Nitnat Falls intrigued me, how it began as a planned village built for the mill workers, laid down eighty years ago in one huge period of construction. The industry thrived until the company went bankrupt in the Seventies. More rain fell here than any other place in North America, no way in but by boat. The ruins of a hotel and indoor swimming pool molded away. Residential streets slowly lost their neat rows of houses to storms, floods, and decay.



As our boat pulled into Nitnat Falls, Amanda and I viewed the pulp plant's abandoned, skeletal hulk, its mossy, collapsed roof and smashed in windows open against the drizzling sky. The vessel anchored to deliver mail and other supplies for the diehard twenty-five inhabitants, and to give adventurous tourists a chance to walk the town while the ship's workers took their lunch break.

"Get back by four," Earl, the tattooed, snuff-chewing captain told us. "We leave on the dot, whether you're back or not. If not, we'll pick you up in two days on the return trip." He spat out a wad of brown goo. "This is not a warning, this is a promise."

We stepped off the ferry and into the drizzle. I wore my giant backpack, stuffed with food and a sleeping bag in case of emergencies. A short, grey-bearded man pushing a homemade cart full of scrap metal stood at the end of the rotting pier. He said, "Hello Mr. Frattura. What are you doing up here?"

I almost tripped into a hole. "Ron Cardinal?" I exclaimed.

I couldn't believe it. After all the trouble I'd gone to escape thirty years of job stress and burnout, the first person I encountered in this wilderness was an ex-client.

"You bet!" he confirmed. Moisture dripped from his filthy baseball cap.

"I thought... I thought..."

"Yeah, that I jumped off a bridge. That was a ruse, man. I needed some time to disappear, find a new life away from what you call civilization." He regarded Amanda and I with one hand over his forehead. "You came to check up on me?"

"I'm retired," I said. "We're here on an adventure tour."

"Pleased to meet you, Ron," Amanda said, presenting her most congenial smile.

"We won't tell anyone you're here," I assured him. I glanced towards the town. I could just make out high mountains closing in on either side, like granite pincers.

"Does it ever get completely light?" I asked Ron.

He grinned. "No, Mr. Frattura. The rain gives us back our own shadows." He paused. "That's where I like to see my darkness, on the outside."

Ron appeared far more gnomish than I'd remembered. His ears stuck way out from his unkempt curls, his smile widened huge and wet, revealing a few missing teeth.

"There's no drugs up here. I'm clean," he said.

"Congratulations, Ron. We're going to take a walk to the old dam. The boat's leaving in a couple of hours." "Don't go too far," said Ron. "Time has a way of getting away on you in these parts."

Amanda laughed uneasily. "We have two hours here," she said. "You must be very strong to pack that wagon around."

We hiked the main street running uphill from the harbour; Ron stared after us, tightly holding onto his cart so it wouldn't roll down into the sea.



"That dam once provided power for the town and mill," I told Amanda. "Apparently, it's a work of engineering genius."

I didn't tell her, but the coolness of the mist ahead attracted me more than viewing the dam. Greyness enveloped us as we walked hand in hand past the shell of the old grocery store. Beside its fallen and shattered sign, a rusted-out logging truck lay on its side. I felt lighter and lighter, all the locked-up thoughts and images of thirty years working with the mentally ill lifting as we climbed higher up the main street.

"Jackson, this place kind of scares me," Amanda said. "Don't you think the mountains are closer now than when we arrived?" She paused. "And what about bears?"

"We're more likely to see porcupines," I said. I told her that the squat, quilled creatures roamed Nitnat Falls at night, chewing on plywood and rubber to keep their teeth worn down. "Otherwise their incisors will grow right up through their jaws."

"Sounds creepy." Amanda gave a nervous laugh. She stayed skinny and fit, gregarious and hyper, in contrast to what I considered my laid-back calm. Our relationship was a case of "opposites attract." She began to talk about how much Nitnat Falls properties would be worth on the real estate market if a European investor seized an opportunity. I felt an urge to move in silence. Her talking pierced and interrupted my enjoyment of the ghost town ambiance. We hiked by the old hotel where a few lumber-jacketed men sat around a camp stove lit on a table in the doorless lobby. Amanda waved at them.

"Would you like some porcupine stew?" said a skinny rail of a man with a huge stubbly jaw, stirring the contents of his cooking pot with a pair of deer antlers.

I moved closer, could see black mold along what remained of the plaster walls beside him. I glimpsed the bubbling mass in the pot.

"Thanks, but we're here for hiking," I replied. "Smells good."

"Suit yourself, you're welcome anytime," the man nodded.

"Thanks for the offer," Amanda called. "That food stinks," she said to me as we left. "Like rot."



We climbed up past the remains of the outdoor swimming pool. Big cracks fanned out from its cement bottom. The tallest black toadstools I'd ever seen grew from these fissures. As we moved past a crumbling brick fire station, the mountaintops disappeared in the mist. Skeletal remains of houses gaped through from time to time, and a few rusty, bent street signs announced each corner.

"We must be almost up at the dam by now," Amanda said.

"To me, it feels like we just left the boat," I replied. "Time's moving so fast."

She let her hand free from mine, then clasped it again.

"Do you hear a drumming?" she asked. "Like something trapped in the earth?"

I stopped and listened. "There is a weird sound," I agreed. "Could be my heartbeat."

Amanda grinned slightly. "That would be a good sound," she said. "This feels like a dead place, Jackson. It'd take quite some initiative to get tourism to invest here."

"It's a ghost town," I told her. "It's supposed to be dead."

The further we moved into the mist, the calmer I felt. My old world had been so cluttered and frantic. Over the years I'd absorbed all the information and stories that psychiatric patients told me. I'd been on the scene during dozens of critical incidents, and witnessed the aftermath of scores of suicides and assaults. This constant exposure to troubled, often shattered lives affected me deeply at first, then after a while it all became normal. "You have to detach," my boss once said. "Or you'll end up like them."

I tried to follow the boss's advice. After work, I'd hike for hours in the mountains. Then

I'd drive home, turn on the TV, and watch history and adventure shows. Below that routine there remained a constant anxiety. Keeping the memories in closed-mind compartments caused difficulties. I awakened often in the night, sweating and yelling out of nightmares set in the psychiatric hospital. Within these bad dreams I often couldn't tell if I was the patient or the staff, if I was the one out of control, or the one controlling. Here, though, the mist penetrated through me. cooling the fever of the years.

"Shouldn't we be getting back?" asked Amanda.

"The dam's just up this way," I continued.

I could hear the spillway roaring. We rounded a corner to view the cascading, violent water, and above it a white-capped grey lake curving around under granite cliffs.

I could indeed hear a pounding here, coming from inside the dam.

"Maybe that's the drumming you heard," I said to Amanda. "The old turbines still work."

"It's quite a savage land," she replied. She tried to laugh. "Now I know why it's not a great real estate market."

"In its heyday, it was like anywhere else," I stated. "When we go back, we should check out the old bowling alley."

"You're really stuck on this place," Amanda said. "You've got the whole map of it in your head."



I took off my backpack, pulled out my camera and snapped some photos of the dam. Amanda checked her phone.

"We've got to return now," she said. "It's twenty minutes until the ferry leaves."

"Alright," I nodded. "We can jog down the hill."

However, I couldn't exactly remember the route, even though Amanda just told me I knew the town well.

"I'm sure it's this way," said Amanda.

"No, we go down here!" I shouted, louder than necessary.

I very much wanted to see that old bowling alley. We walked along some side streets, I couldn't resist taking photos of the old crumbling porches, roofs thick with moss, mushrooms poking out through gaps in the rot. A sweet odour wafted through the trees, like chocolate or patchouli, then disappeared.

"What a stink," Amanda coughed. "I wonder where that's coming from."

"They closed the pulp mill forty years ago" I told her. "So it's not from there. I did smell chocolate, but it's gone now."

"Come on, Jackson," Amanda insisted. She held her nose. "Let's go. That captain meant what he said."

We heard the cargo ferry whistle, and were stepping quickly past the old hotel when the mist lifted for a moment and we glimpsed the boat moving out into the inlet.

"I told you we were late!" Amanda leaned against an old railing, it fell back and I grabbed her. She sat against a tree, breathing hard.

"It's ok," I said. "We can stay here a day or two. I brought the tent." I indicated my backpack. "There's an extra-large sleeping bag in here."

"I don't like this place," Amanda said. She took out her cell phone and pushed some buttons. "Just as I thought. No service."

She began to run down the street, waving at the boat as the mist closed in again, shrieking, "Stop! Stop!"

"Let's not panic," I yelled.

I'd already scoped out a place good for a tent on the way up. My pack contained candles, food, survivor blankets.

"We're prepared for a night or two," I shouted at Amanda, who was still running for the wharf, though our boat had already rounded the corner of the inlet. At the waterside, Ron Cardinal sat on a broken sewer pipe, gutting a fish.

"You guys missed the boat!" he exclaimed. "I told you the hours can get away on you."

He wiped his hands on a filthy towel. "Especially if you're committed to the shadowlands."

"Is there any other way out of here?" Amanda pleaded. "Do you know where there's a washroom?"

Ron nodded. "Yeah, I've got a pit toilet and a CB radio up at my cabin. You could call a helicopter or a float plane. It'll be expensive, even if they can get through."

"Let's do it, Jackson," Amanda said.

"It's only a couple of days," I told her. "We can live here free from noise, in perfect silence, away from all distraction. It'll be a Zen thing."

"There's a terrible stink in the air," she said. "I can't detect a thing," I said. "Apart from a slight perfume."

"Neither can I," Ron agreed. "Lots of off-the-boaters say they smell the surfer stink from the old pulp mill, but if you stay here a while it goes away."

"There hasn't been a functional mill here for forty years," I said.

"It stinks more like rot," Amanda told me. "Like dead bodies." She lifted her head and listened. "Can you hear that pounding?"

"Native legends say these mountains have beating hearts," Ron said. "It's a calming place to be if you hallucinate," He laughed, tilted his head in Amanda's direction, and winked at me. "They say the pounding drowns out all the evil spirits."

"I don't hallucinate," said Amanda. "I know what's real and what's not."

I felt light headed, almost high. I stood up and breathed deep in the misty air. "So fresh here," I said.

"What's wrong with you?" Amanda ran up onto the wharf and scanned the horizon. "Do any hunters come in on float planes? We could get a ride with them."

"She's always looking for the easy way out," I whispered to Ron. "In the end, there isn't any."

He seemed so friendly and open, squatting there with his wet fish knife, successful and happy with his catch of the day. I felt I could ask him anything. "Do you still hear voices in your head?" I said.

He shook his head "No. Everything's clear for me now. I'm completely normal in this ghost town." He grinned, showing his black edged, yellow teeth.

"I caught three fish today," he said. "All you do here is relax and fish, and then eat the fish."

Amanda ran back from the wharf. "I need to use your CB radio, Ron," she stated. She turned to me. "We have to call a helicopter. I'll pay for it."

"It's no problem," Ron said. "Come with me, tourist folks."

He picked up his fish and threw them in his cart, then began pushing the cart up the hill. Amanda followed closely, I dawdled behind, admiring the skeletal walls of the old pulp mill. "They're still pretty solid after all this time," I thought.



Ron led us up towards the lobby of the moldy hotel, where the three skinny, long-haired fellows we'd met before sat on cracked white plastic lounge chairs eating their stewed porcupine. I stopped; Amanda strode on, her expression set in frown mode.

"Do you guys hear any drums?" I remarked.

"Yeah, man," said a short, big-eared guy, holding a tiny steel fork. "It's something to do with the dam, how the water bangs those old turbines."

I ran to catch up with Ron and Amanda.

"Those guys told me something very interesting," I exclaimed.

"What would be interesting is getting out of here," Amanda coughed.

Ron led us into a small refurbished cabin, with a roof and sides of many colours. I felt the cool, slightly slimy walls.

"You've got a bit of mold in here," I told him.

"I've taken pieces from the other houses, built myself a hovel," he grinned. "But yes, the spores get everywhere."

"What about electricity?" I asked.

"I have a gas generator, I fill up the can when the cargo boat comes in."

I looked into Ron's misty, red-veined eyes. We smiled at each other. He was so much improved from his days back at the hospital. As a psychiatric patient, he could barely string two coherent sentences together. He remained unshaven and ragged, sure, but who needed to shave or wash up here?

"Where's the CB radio?" Amanda asked.

Ron came out to the front porch carrying it and laughing to himself.

"I'll call, but choppers can't come in here," he giggled. "They won't fly in mist. And it's always misty."

"How the hell do we get out of here then?" Amanda said. "Why did you say you could call a helicopter?"

Ron hesitated. "You were the one who wanted to call," he told her.

Amanda sat on the ground, her hands over her face. "This is crazy," she said. "You tell us one thing, then you tell us the opposite."

"Would you like some fish?" Ron asked.

I felt sorry for Amanda, though she was a bit too hard on Ron. She couldn't appreciate the joys of the wilderness. The place made her sick, she perceived it so much differently than I. Ron stood behind her laughing, holding a greasy frying pan.

"Sure, I'll have some fish," I told him. "Thanks for inviting us."



I put the tent up under some giant cedars, and let Amanda use my sleeping bag. I didn't have much use for sleep in such a mysterious, intriguing place. I spent the night walking among the waddling porcupines, following them through the darkness. I sat with my back against a disintegrating backhoe scoop, watching the mist swirl as morning light tried to penetrate the inlet. I witnessed a couple of bears lumbering around the hotel lobby, sniffing where the men cooked their meat. I chuckled at their huge, ursine shadows dominating what used to be luxury accommodation. When I strolled down the street to be closer, they snorted and kept moving along the waterfront.

"You seem very friendly," I called out to them. "Don't go away."



Amanda spent most of the next day in the tent, trying to get her phone to work. "I can't stand that stink," she said.

"You could be hallucinating," I told her. "I hope you don't have a fever."

I liked the damp closeness, it kept my thoughts and anxiety contained. I relaxed deeply as the foggy ambiance surrounded and held me. Amanda developed a persistent cough, then a cold, and a serious wheeze. I'd never felt healthier, striding the hills of the town with a gnarled old stick Ron said came from a cedar root that penetrated his cabin's crawl space. On leaving day, I slowly packed up the tent.

"I'm exhausted," Amanda whispered. "How could you do this to me?"

She had barely talked during the two days, and wouldn't eat the freeze-dried food I provided. She did drink a lot of Ron's hot tea, which I never told her was made from tree moss.

"You fit in here, Mr. Frattura," said Ron, as I said goodbye.

"I like the place," I said.

"There are long term side effects," Ron continued. He put a finger to his lips, "Sssh," and we stepped out to the sagging porch.

"See this?" He lifted up his shirt. I observed what looked like wet lichens patterned in wavy lines flowing out of his belly button.

"What are those?" I asked. "They seem to be moving slightly."

"It's the Wasting Away." Ron traced his little finger over the grey patterns, then lifted his finger to his lips and spoke in a whisper. "It's all inside me now, just starting to come out. Happens to everyone here." He grinned. "But the more it happens, the better you feel."

"So you're turning into some kind of plant creature?" I asked.

"I'm shedding all my stress and anxiety," he continued. "I'm becoming part of this place, and it's becoming part of me."



Amanda and I stepped up the ramp to the boat. Earl the skipper grabbed both her arms and she leaned on him, coughing. He lowered her to the deck. "Thank you for saving me, sir," she said to him. "Now I need an actual coffee!" She shuffled towards the passenger area without another word, my sleeping bag wrapped around her bowed, stooped shoulders.

"She looked so tall and elegant, getting off the boat," said the Skipper. "But now..." He gestured, "Come on, get on board."

"I dunno," I said. "Do you have a few cans of soup and a camp stove I could buy?" "You need to order by computer," he grinned. He pointed to the shore. "Or you can buy stuff off that guy."

A short, stocky long jawed man from the hotel lobby leaned against a hand-made wagon, piled high with assorted objects. I waved. He gave a big toothless smile and saluted by lifting a bent piece of pipe over his head.

"Do you really want to stay in Nitnat Falls?" Earl asked. He chewed hard on his snuff wad. "It'll suck you in. Lots of folks have just plain disappeared into the moss."

"I don't think I belong out there," I said. "There's too much light." I paused. "Do you at least have a spare couple of blankets?"

"Too much light!" The Skipper laughed, and spat his snuff into the harbour. "You're gonna leave your lady behind?"

"She's pretty sick," I told him.

"Yeah, she coughed like she had bronchitis," the Skipper agreed.

"Do you detect something rank in the air?" I asked. "Like sulphur?"

"Yeah, I can smell it," the Skipper nodded. "Anyone who doesn't live here can. People say it's the ghost of the old pulp plant," he guffawed. "If you can't smell that, then you've been at Nitnat Falls too long."

"When I sniffed," I told him, "the air was perfume."

"I'll tell your lady friend you're staying," the Skipper said. "I can throw you a tarp."



I shouldered my belongings and headed down the wharf, stepping carefully to avoid the rotted holes. I never looked back. Amanda was an extrovert, always reaching for brightness. She was outwardly healthy, undamaged that way. She never saw the world like me, through the eyes of others' delusions. I liked her confidence in objective reality, in the value of real estate and money and success, but in the end, I chose the shadows. There was no pretence there. "You were a good social worker," Ron told me as we sat on his cabin porch, listening to the rain and eating mushrooms with seaweed fried in porcupine grease. "Mr. Frattura! You crossed over to our side."

"Please, call me Jackson."

I lifted up my stained shirt. Below my belly button, I thought I could see a tiny bit of grey lichen poking out. I pulled my shirt back down, released the image from my mind. I would live within the moment, and accept this reality. I stepped from Ron's porch into the Nitnat Falls rain, let the cool ghost town mist wet and wash me through and through. Then I continued walking, clean and free. Up the road, between two towering mountain peaks, the remaining dam turbines shuddered, drumming a steady beat against the river.



I thrive in this mountain darkness, even as I disappear into its ground.

7 comments:

  1. Wow, I feel damp and moldy just from reading the story. Great imagery. The first person narrative was perfectly executed, especially contrasted with Amanda's reactions. Well done and thank you for letting sharing it with us.

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    1. Thanks James for the mighty comment. Story is based on an actual ghost town called Ocean Falls which I have visited...also only accessible by boat. Some interesting characters living there still.

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  2. Wonderful piece of dark fiction, really enjoyed this one. Such vivid descriptions...I can almost smell that porcupine stew. And as it is raining outside as I type this I also feel a slight compulsion to check my own navel for new lichen growth. ;) I think I need to visit a ghost town.

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    1. Thanks, Ron, I appreciate the comment. Applying a hair dryer will help disperse those lichens. These days in my area we welcome the rain. There is a historical book about this particular ghost town, just google 'books about Ocean Falls' and there's a cool you tube video about the town also. Just google you tube Ocean Falls.

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    2. Cool, thanks for that info, will check it out sometime.

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  3. Dark. Scary. Being with damaged people for 30 years would put lichen on anyone's stomach.

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    1. Indeed, there would be transference of some kind, if not physically tangible. Thanks for the comment, Rosemary J.

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